People calling for cuts in federal spending may want to take this pop quiz.
Do federal taxpayers spend more in Washington state on nuclear contractors or widows and orphans?
More on military equipment or food stamps?
More to shore up wheat prices, or to buy lunch for school kids?
Those who answered nuclear contractors, military equipment and wheat are correct, and qualify for a bonus question:
What is the No. 1 recipient of the $3 million per hour that U.S. taxpayers spend in Washington?
It’s not welfare mothers, federal bureaucrats and the National Endowment for the Arts, which are hot topics of debate between conservatives and liberals.
The biggest portion of that spending is for Social Security payments to retirees.
Those are the same Social Security payments that leaders of all political stripes vow to hold sacred. In Washington state, that means $4 billion of the $25 billion that flowed into the state in 1993 from the other Washington is off the table.
“Taking Social Security off the table won’t last for long, because the table is going to collapse,” said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union in Washington, D.C. “It has to be part of any budget balancing solution.”
Medicare, the federal medical program for retirees, is the state’s second largest source of taxpayer spending. Medicaid, the medical program for the poor, is third.
Those totals, plus many others which show the enormous reach of federal programs and the complexity of trimming the budget, come from a computer analysis of all federal payments made in the nation in 1993, the last year for which figures are available.
The analysis shows that taxpayers’ money goes overwhelmingly to programs that budget-cutters seldom mention. It is received by constituencies they are loathe to attack.
Like retirees. Social Security is the biggest, but not the only federal retirement program sending checks to Washington state. Civilian federal workers have a separate system, which paid nearly $900 million to those retirees in Washington in 1993. Railroad workers also have a system, which paid out more than $150 million.
The Army, Navy and Air Force have substantial numbers of retirees in the state, partly because they can take advantage of benefits on nearby bases. All have pension programs that pay out hundreds of millions of dollars per year to state residents.
The Air Force paid about $70 million more in pension and disability benefits to its former members than it paid in salaries to its active duty forces in 1993.
The military - which congressional Republicans want to increase, rather than cut - spends billions each year in Washington.
To buy equipment, build buildings and fix streets on its bases, the Defense Department spent $1.6 billion in 1993 through a system of “procurement contracts.”
To pay the salaries of its active duty and reserve forces and its civilian workers, it spent $2.3 billion.
Sepp said the taxpayers’ group opposes any proposal that would increase the deficit to raise defense spending.
“There are a number of budget-cutting opportunities in the defense budget,” he said.
Susan Tanaka, vice president of the Committee for a Responsible Budget, argues that the deficit cannot be significantly reduced if Social Security is inviolate and defense spending increases. Combined with one other payment which is not eligible for cuts - interest on the national debt - they total more than half the budget.
“That’s the paradox in this year’s budget debate,” she said. “The kinds of things they are doing are not going to solve the problem.”
Congress has proposed some small cuts - they call them recissions - in this year’s budget, but has yet to take up spending plans for next year.
In an average year, federal taxpayers pay for 740 programs that have at least one recipient in the state.
The dollar amounts are sometimes so large that they are unfathomable. But the analysis of spending provides some interesting comparisons:
Taxpayers spent more for one month of payments to contractors cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation than it spent for a year’s worth of school lunches.
They spent $112 million to subsidize wheat crops, about 19 times what it spent on art, music and dance through the National Endowment for the Arts and 29 times what it spent on public radio and television through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
They spent about $836,000 to subsidize wool producers, slightly more than it spent on early education programs for handicapped children, slightly less than it spent for weather research.
Taxpayers supported 73 programs, totalling some $240 million, covering some phase of education. There are education programs for Native Americans, immigrants, migrants, postVietnam veterans and nurse midwives. They spent money on vocational, secondary and postsecondary programs.
Taxpayers gave money to 48 programs in Washington studying some type of health problem, researching everything from cancer to heart disease to kidney problems to allergies.
With so many programs spending so much money, it would seem at first glance easy to find places to cut. That hasn’t been the case, said Tanaka, whose Washington, D.C., group tries to educate the public about budget priorities.
“Whatever the program, it has a dedicated constituency,” Tanaka said. “As soon as you eliminate one type of spending (from debate), everyone else says, ‘Me too!”’
Until recently, there has been no constituency of people worried about the deficit, she said.
That might be changing.
Each year, the Committee for a Responsible Budget holds forums around the country, inviting as many as 250 people to try their hand at cutting the budget.
The group has found that the public is able to do what Congress cannot, balance the budget.
They do it by following two simple rules, Tanaka said. They can’t put the problem off, and everyone has to contribute to the solution.
Washington’s federal government spending
MEMO: Graphic also ran with Idaho edition: Idaho’s federal government spending